By Reva Sherrard
There’s a story about the old wall around Milan, Italy. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his armies were at the gates, ready to storm the city. A young Milanese woman appeared up at the battlements in full sight of the Emperor and his soldiers. She raised her richly embroidered skirts to her waist and, with regal unconcern, began trimming her pubic hair with a pair of shears.
Thunderstruck, Barbarossa froze where he stood. His soldiers gaped and crossed themselves, aghast; some dropped their weapons. Confusion and dread spread among the troops, who until moments ago had been hot with battle-purpose. When at last the Emperor raised his voice it was to order a retreat. He would be back, but for that day the city was safe.
To celebrate the taunt that had driven Barbarossa from their walls the merchants and nobles of Milan had a marble bas-relief of the woman — raised skirts and all — installed over the gate where she had stopped the army. For centuries after it was known as Porta Tosa, “Shears Gate.”
The tale may be apocryphal, but the carving is real; it dates from the 12th century, when Barbarossa laid siege to and eventually sacked Milan. And it’s not as a far-fetched a notion as it seems that a little flashing may have turned back a medieval army. The gesture of a woman lifting her skirts to deliberately expose her genitalia was a known if extreme part of the physical vocabulary of the ancient world. We have a term for it from Ancient Greek: anasyrma, literally, “skirt up” (the ultimate antithesis of an “up-skirt,” for reasons revealed below), and it elicited a primal, more than sexual response apparently hard-wired into the human psyche.
Anasyrma was a widespread phenomenon in war. In the early Irish epic “Táin Bó Cúailnge“ it takes the sudden appearance of no fewer than 150 naked women to shake the bloodthirsty hero Cú Chulainn out of his battle frenzy, though a single woman could produce the same result in ordinary men: only a hundred years ago the lady of a feuding Galway house drove off armed attackers by confronting them with skirts raised, according to a later eyewitness account in the “Irish Times“ (September 23, 1977). Meanwhile, into the 19th century women in rural China would line up atop town walls in wartime and expose their vulvas to curse the enemy’s weapons. The mythic Greek hero Bellerophon, as well as a flood sent by the sea-god Poseidon to aid him, were forced to give up their assault on a palace in Lycia (modern-day Turkey) when its women ran out in anasyrma.
Victorian mythographers interpreted such acts as blatant sexual propositions from which the male subjects retreated to protect their chastity. Rather than comment on the multiple levels of ludicrousness at work here, let’s look at the old ladies displaying their sex in medieval churches throughout Ireland, Britain, and continental Europe. Sheela-na-gigs (Irish, roughly, “pussy woman”) are stone carvings with gaunt, croneish faces, bent legs, and hands indicating exaggeratedly large vulvas. Included in decorative work on churches they served a purpose similar to that of gargoyles — to repel evil forces — while bestowing a very pagan blessing. These images also appear on old town walls and houses, where they were sometimes called “Evil Eye Stones,” i.e., protectors against malefic magical influence caused by ill-will and jealousy. A common pre-modern belief throughout Europe and parts of Asia held that women could calm storms and halt animal attacks simply by revealing their privates. Lest the gents feel left out, it bears mentioning that till the end of the Roman Empire a nice erect penis was just the thing for attracting good luck while banishing bad throughout the Mediterranean.
Most surviving sheela carvings are in Norman churches in Ireland and Britain, where they seem to have been imported by continental stonemasons. Their stark, stylized forms were more palatable to a medieval Christian aesthetic than the voluptuous “proto-sheela” figurines popular with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who mass-produced amulets and even gaming dice in the shape of plumper, more realistic women in the characteristic bent-leg pose. These “Baubos,” as they’re known, are more erotic in nature, likely because they came from cultures that did not separate the sexual from the divine — quite the opposite.
A Greek myth relates how the agrarian goddess, wild with grief after the abduction of her daughter Persephone, lacked the heart to allow seed to sprout and fruit to burgeon. She would not even eat or drink. Barrenness reigned until an old woman named Baubo surprised Demeter into laughter by flashing her vulva; then the goddess broke her fast and spring returned to the earth.
This was the blessing sought by owners of Baubo amulets, an earthy life-affirming power strong enough to stop raging warriors in their tracks, good fortune that canceled out ill. The modern, not unlike the covetous “evil” eye, might see only titillation under a woman’s skirt; but that’s very much its loss.
While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.
Tags: anasyrma, Baubos, Cú Chulainn, Demeter, evil eye, Evil Eye Stones, Frederick Barbarossa, Irish Times, Myth & Mind, Persephone, Porta Tosa, Reva Sherrard, Shears Gate, Sheela-na-gigs, Táin Bó Cúailnge, vulvas